Mike Hoyt

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PanzerGrenadier – Afrika Corps
Scenario 49 Babini at the Front
10 December 1940 0900

Col. Perralto looked around at his small tank brigade. He had about four companies of the M13 and M11 tank models and another half dozen platoons of the much less capable L3 light tanks. He turned back to the map and resumed his briefing for the assembled officers.

“Yesterday, General Bellini’s CCNN division was badly mauled to our east. They are retreating in good order, but they have lost all heavy weapons. We can expect the British armor may try to come west along the south of this sand sea, then turn north again to intersect the coast road and cut-them off. Our best guess is that the retreating column of trucks will arrive here in our area of operations in about 5 hours.”

The other Italian officers craned forward as Colonel Perralto indicated the map. “You can see that the main coast road enters here on the east, runs along the shore for several kilometers and then makes this hard turn to the south, right where we are standing. Just after making the turn, there is a track that continues west, just over there”, he gestured. “That is the retreat route for the trucks of CCN. If the British come, it will probably be either straight up the main road from our south, or perhaps along this track from the southeast. In either case, we will use this line of hills here to form a screen and keep them off the coast road”.

He indicated three hills, running roughly parallel to the coast road and maybe 2 kilometers south of the road. “They have no names, but for simplicity I suggest we call them Fat Boy, Skinny and Tiny, in order, east to west”. The officers grinned, the names were certainly evocative of the shapes on the map. “You can see that after making the hard turn here, the main road runs due south between Skinny and Tiny. I want two companies dug in along the forward edges of these hills, the rest of us will remain mobile to see what happens. But we cannot let the British get between us and those trucks, so I anticipate concentrating most of the force in the gap between Fat Boy and Skinny and trying to push any British who show up off to the southwest”

There were no questions and the Italian commanders returned to their tanks to brief crews and check ammo one more time.

0900
Col. Baker-Hughes banged his elbow on the cupola of his A9 tank as he struggled to steady the map. His 4th Armored Brigade of the 7th Armored Division had been detailed to race west and cut-off the retreating Italian infantry division so badly mauled over the previous days. The approach march had been tiresome, endless bouncing around as they followed some sort of goat trail several kilometers south of, and parallel to the main road, which was itself unreachable due to an intervening sand sea. But his driver had finally turned northwest and they were now rolling across a hard rock mesa.

As planned, his Mk VIb light tanks turned north and headed cross country for the eastern most hill he had marked on their maps. Nicknamed FatBoy for it shape, it would provide the perfect cover for his light forces to ambush the Italian trucks coming from the east. The rest of the brigade he kept with him as they followed the track towards its intersection with the main road, 6 kilometers or so south of the coast.

0915
Baker-Hughes pulled his tank to a stop just off the track and watched in some dis-belief as a Gladiator bi-plane drifted out of the sky and landed next to his column. The pilot climbed out and reported that there was an Italian armored division just to his northwest, up at the coast road turn-off, now referred to as the Big Bend.

Col. Baker-Hughes thanked him and sent him on his way. Turning to his aide, “Do you really think the Italians can scrape together a whole division?”

“No Sir”, replied Maj. Howe, “Intelligence estimates no more than a brigade in this area”.

“You are probably right. Still, we need to be cautious. Remember that our orders are to not get into a major action, we cannot afford to lose more than maybe a dozen tanks. Let’s regroup once we reach the intersection, make sure we’re ready for a real battle if that is what it’s to be”.

Col. Perralto watched the small plane drone off to the southeast. The obsolete bi-plane had appeared from the east and strafed his command just a few minutes ago. It made only one pass, the pilot must have been aware that his puny machine guns could have no effect on the Italian armor.

Major Spa interrupted, “No damage sir”.

Col. Perralto turned to him, “Good. But I wonder why he departed in that direction, instead of back along the coast road? Perhaps we’d better get into position. And let’s send a couple of scouts out here”, his finger stabbed the map, “to the northwest corner of this mesa where they can watch the approach routes”

0930
As the Italian armor heads east along the road towards their assigned positions at Fat Boy and Skinny hills another British plane, a Baltimore this time, appears from the east and bombs a company of bunched up M11’s, destroying two and disrupting the remainder. Col. Perralto quickly dispatches Major Spa to help get the company sorted out, and then radios a reminder to spread out, it’s obvious the British aircraft will be returning.

Major Tesser, commanding the British Light Tank force tried to keep one eye on his force, just descending the mesa top and one eye on the bombing run. “Looks like there must be Italians just over there on the other side of the skinny hill. I hope we’re not too late”, he mused to himself. Well first things first. Fat Boy Hill was now about 2 kilometers due north of his position. Turning to his driver and pointing he said, “Let’s get up there and see what it is they’re bombing over on the road”.

0945
A flight of Hurricane fighters comes up from the east and strafes the Italian armor just getting into position around the tip of Skinny Hill. No damage, but the fighters radio a warning to Col. Baker-Hughes. Baker-Hughes had been paused at the intersection of his track and the main road, waiting for the Matilida’s to join. Now he deployed into a battle line for the advance north. He radios an update to Major Tesser, “Take up position on Fat Boy Hill if possible, but do not get into an extended fire-fight with heavier tanks, if necessary fall-back south and re-join on me”.

The Italian scouts on the mesa radio a warning to Col. Perralto, they can see the lead elements of the British armor force forming up along the road below them. Almost immediately, the Italian force heading for Fat Boy Hill reports British tanks coming off the mesa and heading north for Fat Boy Hill as well. It looks like it will be a race for the high ground!

1000
Col. Baker-Hughes starts rolling north. A light tank on his right flank flushes the Italian scouts on the mesa, who turn and run east along the mesa edge. Baker-Hughes is now concerned about having his force divided and turns his tanks northeast, heading for the Skinny-Fat Boy Hill gap and possible hook-up with Maj. Tesser. He leaves one platoon of A9’s along the road, with orders to dig-in and hold this western flank. They promptly nick-name their position the sandpit.

1015
The British armor force finds Italian tanks digging in along the southeastern tip of Skinny and halts at a range of about 1000 meters. Maj. Tesser also halts about 800 meters south of Fat Boy Hill as he sees Italians occupying the western tip of that hill. He sends one company, commanded by Captain Hiro further east, with orders to slip around Fat Boy Hill and report on conditions along the coast road.

Col. Perralto is delighted to have made it into position before the British got to the hills. He now watches with some satisfaction as his tanks maneuver into advantageous positions on the hills while the British try to get organized. Even the report that the British were trying to slip around Fat Boy Hill does not worry him, a glance to his left confirms that he has a company of M11’s still coming south from the road towards Fat Boy Hill. They are slow, but considerably outgun the light British tanks and should be able to seal off the eastern approaches to the battlefield.

1030
Col. Baker-Hughes is a bit confused. His tanks generally outrange the Italians and a long-range gunnery duel would work to his favor while he waits for the real target to appear, the Italian truck convoy. But, with the Italians digging in on higher ground most of his advantage is gone and both sides have roughly equal chances of inflicting casualties. His orders are to avoid excessive losses, but he must get through these hills if he’s going to have any chance of intercepting the convoy. He issues no orders, letting the one company continue to slide east around Fat Boy Hill. Firing to his rear indicates a platoon of A9’s has surprised and destroyed the Italian scouts who were trying to sneak off to the south, then circle around west and north back to their own lines.

Col. Perralto watches as his tanks try some long range fire at the British milling around down on the desert floor. At 1000m it’s beyond their effective range but it’s good for morale and encourages the confusion he thinks he can see among the British.

1045
Captain Hiro with the Mk VIb company discovers Italian armor to his front as he rounds Fat Boy Hill. Ignoring orders, he attempts to charge past them, counting on his superior speed to get his force to the road. The Italian tanks fire, destroying one platoon and bringing the other two to a halt almost directly adjacent to the tanks, range 200 meters. Survival for Captain Hiro is going to depend a lot on who can move or reload first.

Both sides exchange ineffective long-range fire in the center, the gap between Fat Boy Hill and Skinny. One Matilda platoon, disgusted at this approach and trusting in their excellent armor charges the middle of the gap, pulling to within 400m of the Italian line.

Meanwhile, the Italian companies holding the Skinny-Tiny pass can’t resist the apparent easy pickings of the lone British platoon along the road. They abandon their positions and charge south along the road.

1100
The British airforce makes a belated reappearance, but causes no casualties. The Italian armor on the east flank fires again, destroying another of Captain Hiro’s platoons. The sole surviving British platoon flees north, hoping to gain the coastal road.

Firing is picking up in the center. The British combine fire from several platoons and destroy an Italian platoon on the hill, proving that even being dug in is no proof against the British fire-power. But the Italians also get a long range hit, and then, surprisingly, get another hit on the lead Matilida platoon. Col. Perralto orders his tanks on Skinny to descend into the battle, hopefully splitting the British center from the western flank now fighting around the road.

Col. Baker-Hughes rushes two platoons west to help the dug-in A9’s at the sandpit, now being charged by four Italian tank platoons. But he is in trouble. British losses are already unacceptably high and the convoy is not due for another 3 hours or so. As he debates with himself what to do, the Italians on Fat Boy Hill roll down into the valley, cutting off his last chance for an unobstructed dash through Fat Boy Hill-Skinny gap.

1115
Italian armor, having shot up Capt. Hiro’s company, climb up the north side of Fat Boy Hill, completing the Italian line. Col. Baker-Hughes makes up his mind. He will ignore casualties, stopping that convoy is his main mission. He orders a general advance into the Fat Boy Hill-Skinny gap, triggering much firing from both sides, but no hits. The Italians on the west flank advance to within 200m of the British platoon, at the sandpit, but re-inforcements arrive just in time.

1130
The Gladiator pilot re-appears, but can do nothing to aid the hard-pressed British tankers. Heavy firing at point-blank range erupts around the sandpit, but incredibly neither side gets a hit as the billowing dust throws off their aim. In the center it is another story. Both sides take losses, 6 tanks for the Italians and then 9 tanks for the British go up in flames as the gunners get the range.

1145
Col. Baker-Hughes realizes he cannot force the gap in the center. He orders his tanks to break both east and west. They’ll have to find a better route to the coast road. Some of the British tanks hug the south face of Skinny Hill, past the abandoned Italian positions on their right, and begin to slip behind the battle of the sandpit raging on their left. The pass between Skinny and Tiny is undefended!

The tanks in the sandpit battle remained locked in combat, but neither side can get a hit.

1200
Italians in the center are now in the zone, destroying another 15 British tanks, including an entire company of Matilida’s caught in a cross-fire. The British tanks slipping along the south edge of Skinny are spotted and most of them are hit and destroyed. The battle of the sandpit continues it’s fierce, but utterly ineffective fire-fight.

1215
Col. Baker-Hughes has lost control of the battle. His tanks that went east to try and slip around Fat Boy Hill again, find the Italians have once again beaten him to it. The center is a sea of burning tanks, too many of them British. His lunge towards Skinny-Tiny looks to be shot down, with only one effective platoon still moving.

But, just when all appears lost, Captain Truscott who has been commanding the battle of the sandpit and is in the middle of a point-blank firefight, hits on a novel tactic. He calls upon the Italian tanks to his front to surrender! Incredibly, they do! Disheartened by their own poor showing, the other Italians start to fall back towards the Skinny-Tiny gap. Capt. Truscott has broken the stalemate! Much encouraged by this, the British manage to kill another half dozen tanks as they flee.

1230
Italians falling back to Skinny-Tiny gap lose another platoon as Col. Baker-Hughes, recovering his senses, charges for the gap with everything that will roll. A Beaufighter flies up from the east just in time to watch Capt. Hiro’s last platoon get pinned against the sea and destroyed by two of the Italian platoons that have been playing cat and mouse with him ever since he slipped away from the main battle 2 hours ago.

1245
Col. Perralto knows he should be reacting to the British move west, but pickings are still good here in the center. With a 7:1 advantage he is content to spend a little time mopping up the remaining British tankers.

Col. Baker-Hughes seizes the reprieve. Concentrated British fire kills another Italian platoon on the west flank, less than a dozen Italian tanks now guard that pass, though they are feverishly digging in.

1300
A bit of lull. British on west flank gather themselves for an assault on the Skinny-Tiny gap and one platoon successfully picks its way across the middle of Skinny, turns west and tries to come around into the Skinny-Tiny gap from the North. Italians are also re-organizing.

1315
RAF puts in another appearance, a Hudson this time that misses everything but the desert in it’s bombing run. British tanks mass fire and eliminate all but the last platoon in Skinny-Tiny, while two independent platoons, survivors of earlier action try to raise hell along the road.

Col. Perralto is happy to have the east flank secured. With all British tanks to his west he intends to drive them southwest, opening the way for the trucks which should be coming soon.

1330
Last British units in vicinity of Fat Boy Hill give it up and head south. Italians head north and take up positions along a track that runs parallel to the coastal road, about 600 meters south of the road. From here they can protect the expected convoy if the British try coming north again. The Italians corner and finish off the last British platoon still loose along the road, and a late appearance by an RAF Baltimore does not effect anything as he misses everything but the ocean!

1345
British tanks clear last defenders of Skinny-Tiny gap and race north along the road for the ocean. There are no Italians to oppose them, although Col. Perralto is now hurrying westward cross-country along the north side of Skinny hill.

1400
The British tanks make it to the Big Bend in the main road and establish blocking positions stretching some 800 meters back along the southern leg of the road. Col. Perralto throws his lead tanks at the British, having lost the race, he is determined to attack before they can properly dig in and prepare their road-block.

1415
British fire kills the lead Italian tanks, but the combat does keep them from digging in.

1430
Another RAF Baltimore appears and attacks the western most Italian tanks, with no results. The tanks do a better job, killing another Italian platoon as it comes up from the east. Both sides are down to little more than company strength now, but the British are firmly across the retreat route. Col. Perralto orders his surviving tanks to swing slightly south, hoping to gain local superiority on the British south flank, then drive them up into the sea.

1445
Lead elements of the truck convoy appear on the east edge and race west up the highway. The flank force on the track to their left keeps pace and it is becoming apparent that the few British survivors still wandering around Fat Boy Hill and further south will not be a threat. All eyes are on the tank fight at the Big Bend.

1500
British fire kills another tank platoon and Col. Perralto has to admit he cannot budge the British. His survivors fall back slightly south, trying to get re-organized so they can concentrate fire. Maj. General Bellini, leading the truck convoy, is made of sterner stuff. He orders his trucks to close to within 400 meters of the British tanks, then jumps out with several platoons of infantry to rush the British position.

1515
The British continue to fire on the Italian tanks, thinking they are the bigger threat. Another Italian platoon is destroyed. But the Italian infantry now rushes to within 200 meters of the British line and more trucks are disgorging their infantry. Other truck drivers, unsure of what is happening, begin veering off the road to the southwest, heading at an angle for the Skinny-Tiny gap. And still the convoy continues to enter the mapedge from the east.

1530
The Italian infantry close assaults the British tanks, causing no casualties, but the confusion prevents the British from firing on the trucks that are now beginning to sweep around their south flank. Too late, Col. Baker-Hughes realizes his roadblock should have been a bit more strung out to the south, anchored on both the coast and Tiny Hill. He tries to displace westward to put this idea in effect.

1545
The dismounted Italian infantry chase the British tanks westward. They feel like they are winning, even as the British machine guns cause a few casualties. But the Italian trucks are now pouring around, even between, the pre-occupied British tanks. The first two trucks even exit the eastern edge of the track. Only two British gunners keep their heads and shoot the almost defenseless trucks at point-blank range.

1600
Col. Perralto tries to get his last tanks back into the battle, but they can no more swim through the tide of infantry and trucks rushing westward than can the British. The British tanks are now being submerged with infantry, still no casualties but the confusion has left each tank fighting it’s own war, and nobody is shooting at the trucks streaming past!

1615
Col. Baker-Hughes has a passing thought, this would be a great time for the RAF to put in an appearance, now that there are plenty of unarmored targets around! But no such luck and he quickly gets back to dealing with infantry swarming around his tank. Some of the British tank gunners are getting back on target, three more trucks go up in flames. But more and more trucks are passing through the gauntlet and exiting on off to the east. Col. Perralto has finally got his tanks into position to fire, but they all miss long, raising waterspouts out in the ocean!

1630
Col. Perralto adjusts his range and kills the only British tank he can see that is not covered with Italian infantry. British are down to their last 15 tanks.

1645
Most Italians are now past the roadblock, the brave infantry sprint to clamber aboard the last waiting trucks. Baker-Hughes gets off a few shots but they cause no harm.

1700
Col. Baker-Hughes and his last 10 tanks own the battlefield. A few dazed Italians are still struggling east on foot, and he has his own survivors wandering around to the south, but the last effective fighting force is his own, much reduced, company. The two armor forces have completely mauled each other, formerly brigades they would now be stretching the truth to call themselves companies. But the bulk of the CCNN convoy has made it through. Col. Baker-Hughes has failed, his brigade is destroyed and the convoy was not stopped. This engagement provides a lift to the Italians and reminds everyone that even a retreating foe may still have teeth!

Notes

This was a solo game and I made a couple of mistakes with the rules.

Most importantly, in this scenario the British Tanks are supposed to be “efficient”, which would allow them two shots per activation instead of the usual one. In effect, I deprived Col. Baker-Hughes of half his fire-power.

I also made another pro-Italian decision at the beginning of the game. There are not really enough Italian tank leaders to go around, so you are supposed to designate which units have leaders and which do not. This sounded like a hassle to me, so I just went and assumed a leader for each Italian unit, just like the British.

These two departures from the scenario as written probably doomed Col. Baker-Hughes. His initial idea of trying to fight a long range gunnery duel would work a lot better if he got twice as many shots and if the Italians had trouble maneuvering (the prime effect of leaders in this case).

I also inadvertently altered the order of battle, in this case to favor the British. I gave them the Matilida’s because this game was originally to have a rookie British commander and we were having trouble locating enough A9 counters, so what the heck? Throw in a few better tanks… Had no real impact on this game, the Matilidas doing little more than drawing fire.

Maj. Truscott’s clever use of the Italian surrender rule deserves mention. Under this rule, any Italian unit adjacent to an Allied unit has a chance of surrendering. In retrospect, Col. Baker-Hughes might have been better served to demand surrender of the infantry assaulting his force at the Big Bend, but in the heat of the moment he forgot about that option. Which seems reasonable.
 
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Jon Badolato
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Sweet write up Mike. Thanks for the effort. A nice read
 
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